Latin Alphabet – 23 Magical Letters Used Around The World

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

The Latin alphabet is also called the Roman alphabet. It is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world today.

But how much do you actually know about the Latin Alphabet? Let’s have a look at its history, development, influences and similarities to the English alphabet.

Table of Contents

History of The Latin Alphabet

The Latin, or Roman, alphabet was originally adapted from the Etruscan alphabet during the 7th century. The term Latin script is often used for the entire family of alphabets.

The Latin alphabet is used in various forms by many languages, like Romance languages, Germanic, Celtic, some Slavic languages, Amerindian, Indigenous Australian, Austronesian, Vietnamese, Malay and Indonesian languages. Those languages discard letters from or add letters to the classical Latin alphabet.

The Latin alphabet has been developed through ages. There was The Classical Latin alphabet. Then There were some changes in the medieval times. In ancient Roman times there were two main types of Latin script, capital letters and cursive.

What is The Origin of The Latin Alphabet?

There are different opinions about the origin of the Latin alphabet. Some go with the opinion that the Latin alphabet was borrowed directly from the Greek. Others believe that it was partially borrowed from the Etruscan, a language spoken by the Etruscans in Etruria, Italy until about the 1st century AD.

The Etruscan alphabet developed from a Western variety of the Greek alphabet brought to Italy by Euboean Greek. Cumae, a Greek colony, brought the western variant of the Greek alphabet to the Latins in the 7th century BC in southern Italy. From the Cumae alphabet, the Etruscan alphabet was derived and the Latins finally adopted 21 of the original 26 Etruscan letters.

The Latin alphabet spread from Italy, along with the Latin language, to the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea with the expansion of the Roman Empire. The earliest known inscriptions in the Latin alphabet date from the 6th century BC. It was adapted from the Etruscan alphabet during the 7th century BC. Here is a table to show the ancient Latin alphabet:

Latin was originally written either from right to left, left to right, or alternating between those two directions. By the 5th or 4th century BC it was normally written from left to right.

Development of the Latin Alphabet

The Latins originally adopted 21 of the original 26 Etruscan letters. The sounds /g/ and /k/ were not distinguished in the oldest Latin texts. Before a vowel or between vowels I was pronounced /j/. Elsewhere it was pronounced /i/. The letters k, y, and z used only for writing words of Greek origin.

The letter J, and U and W were added in the Middle Ages. The lower case letters developed in the Middle Ages from New Roman Cursive writing. The old capital Roman letters were only used at that time for formal writings and writing documents.

The rules of capitalization have been changed over time, also rules were different from language to the other. Some languages used capital letters only for the beginning of the paragraph or for the proper nouns, while other languages used them for most of the nouns like the today German language.

The Latin alphabet spread from Italy, along with the Latin language, to the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea with the expansion of the Roman Empire. The eastern half of the Roman Empire, including Greece, Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt, continued to use Greek as a common language (lingua franca).

The western half of the Empire spoke Latin. The western Romance languages, including Spanish, French, Catalan, Portuguese and Italian, derived from Latin and continued to use and adapt the Latin alphabet. The Latin alphabet spread to the peoples of northern Europe With the spread of Western Christianity.

As late as 1492, only the languages spoken in western, northern and central Europe  used the Latin alphabet. The Greek alphabet was still in use by Greek-speakers around the eastern Mediterranean. The Arabic alphabet was widespread within Islam, both among Arabs and non-Arab nations.

The Latin alphabet spread to the Americas, Australia, and parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific with European colonization, along with the Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch languages.

The modern Latin alphabet consists of 52 letters, including both upper and lower case, plus 10 numerals, punctuation marks and a variety of other symbols such as %, @ and &. These are the 26 letters we are familiar with today. Here is a list of the modern Latin alphabet:

In 1928, Turkey adopted the Latin alphabet for the Turkish language. Later on it was displaced. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, several of the newly-independent Turkic-speaking republics adopted the Latin alphabet. In the 1970 s, the People’s Republic of China developed their own alphabet into the Latin alphabet.

Many languages added the basic Latin alphabet with a variety of accented letters.  Its main usage is to change the phonetic value of the letter to which it is added, but it may also be used to modify the pronunciation of a whole word or syllable, or to distinguish between homographs. Here is a list of the accented letters:

By the 1960 s, the International Standards Organisation (ISO) simplified the Latin alphabet in their standard. This action is done based on popular usage. Later standards issued by the ISO, have continued to define the 26 x 2 letters of the English alphabet as the basic Latin alphabet with extensions to handle other letters in other languages.

Greek symbols and Greek-to-Latin alphabet conversion

How to Pronounce The Latin Alphabet?

Many of the letters in the Latin alphabet are pronounced different to how they look. For example, C is pronounced with a /keː/ sound such as “cat” and V is pronounced with a /uː/ such as wind. There are many helpful Latin alphabet pronunciation videos on YouTube to help you pronounce the letters correctly.

Old English Latin Alphabet

The Old English Latin alphabet generally consisted of 24 letters, and was used for writing from the 9th to the 12th centuries. Most texts were written in West Saxon, one of the four main dialects. Here is a list of the Old English alphabet:

Roman Numerals

Roman numerals are a system for representing numbers with letters of the Latin, or Roman, alphabet. Several letters from the Latin alphabet are used for the representation of roman numerals. There was a need to create a standardized system that could be used for trade and communications. It was widely used throughout Europe as the standard writing system until the late middle ages.

Modern Roman numerals use seven letters to represent different numbers. These letters are I = 1; V = 5; X = 10; L = 50; C = 100; D = 500; M = 1,000. The numerals can be written as either capital or lowercase letters.  A bar over a numeral multiplies its value by 1,000: for example:

  •  ǐ (1×1000)= 1000,
  • Ĺ(50×1000)= 50,000.

When a numeral is followed by one of equal or lesser value, their values are added together. In other words, if a symbol holding a greater value is placed after another symbol of greater or equal value, it will be added. These are some examples:

  •  II=2
  •  VI(5+1)=6
  • MCI (500+5-+1)= 551

A numeral is never used more than three times in a row. Instead of repeating the numeral a fourth time, the value is expressed by a smaller numeral followed by a larger numeral. In other words, if a symbol of a smaller value is placed before a greater value symbol, it will be subtracted. Here are some examples:

  • IV(5-1)=4
  • VX((10-5)= 5
  • DM (1000-500)=500

The letters I, X, C can be repeated thrice in succession. Additionally, L, V, D cannot be repeated or the number is considered to be invalid.

To convert Arabic numbers to Roman Numerals, we split the numbers into their least expandable form, write their respective Roman letters and add/subtract them. For example, 2523 is converted to MMDXXIII.

Here is the Roman numeral chart:

Roman Numerals chart 1-100

Bigger Roman Numerals

Latin Alphabet Vs English Alphabet

  • The Latin alphabet has only 23 letters while English has 26.
  • There is no j,w and capital U/small v in the Latin alphabet.
  • The letter c is never soft in the Latin alphabet; it always sounds /k/.
  • The letter g is never soft; it always sounds /g/ as in goal.
  • q never stands alone; it always has a u with it, and the two letters make one sound (qu = kw).
  • The letter s never sounds /z/ in the Latin alphabet.
  • The letter v always sounds /w/ in the Latin alphabet.
  • The letter z sounds /dz/ in the Latin alphabet.
  • th, ph, and ch, sound like  strong t, strong p, and guttural c, but it is acceptable to pronounce them as modern English th, ph, and k, respectively.
  • Vowel letters in the Latin alphabet sound completely different from those in English. They don’t have variations.
  • a always as the a in English ball
  • ä as in aha
  • e always as the e in English bet
  • ë as the English a in cake
  • i always as the i in English bin
  • o always as the o in English coffee
  • ö as the oa in English boat
  • u always as the u in English good
  • ü as the oo in English book
  • y as in the y in English cry but more rounded
  • y like the French u or German ü
  • There are six diphthongs in the Latin alphabet: ae, eu, au, oe, ei and ui.
  • There are two semivowels in the Latin alphabet , i and u/v. When these begin words or occur between two vowels, they have the value of a consonant.
  • In dividing words into syllables in the Latin Alphabet, a consonant after a vowel goes with the following syllable.

How Many Languages Use the Latin Alphabet?

At least 100 languages today use the Roman alphabet as its primary orthography. These languages include all of the languages of Western Europe, which include English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, Dutch, etc.

Several languages of the Western Hemisphere such as Quechua and Hawaiian, several Eastern European languages such as Czech, Polish, Croatian, and to some extent Macedonian and Serbian use it as an alternative script.

Several African languages such as Swahili, Afrikaans, and Zulu, and even some Asian languages, particularly Turkish, Vietnamese, Bahasa Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, which have replaced the Chinese and Arabic scripts almost entirely, if not altogether, and Tagalog.

How is the Latin Alphabet Used Today?

As it is mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, around 100 languages use the Latin alphabet in writing. Each language uses a different set of alphabets. Some languages add them to the Latin alphabet, other languages use fewer sets of the Latin alphabet. This is the modern Latin alphabet as used to write English.

Latin Calligraphy Alphabet

The word calligraphy means artistic or stylized handwriting. Latin has different styles of writing. Most calligraphy is done with pen and ink on paper. Special pens, called calligraphy pens or fountain pens dipped in ink are mostly used to write calligraphy. It didn’t exist before the 15th century. Here are some of these writing styles:

Rustic Capitals

It is one of the stylized handwritings. It was used between the 1st and 9th centuries AD. It was used throughout the Roman Empire for books and occasionally for formal documents. A pen with a broad end is used for this style. The Rustic Capitals consist only of capital letters. Here’s a sample of the Rustic Capital:

Cursive Capitals

It is another stylized Latin handwriting. It was used in the 1st century for most documents. A pen, cut to a narrow point, is used in this style of writing. Some of the letters in this style are used in lowercase letters, small letters, and joined to the following one. Here’s a sample text in cursive capital style:

Uncial, Half Uncial, and Cursive Minuscule

Unical is another style of handwriting. It was used during the 4th and 5th centuries for books and a new business hand. A square-edged pen, perhaps cut at an oblique angle, was used for this handwriting. From the 6th century,  a pen without an oblique seemed to be used. It was not in use in the 12th century.

Half Uncial then started to be in use. IT was less popular than Unical. Letters in this style of handwriting used lower case letters, small letters, except for the N. The distinguishing letter forms in half uncial are a, b, d, g, h, l, m, r, and s.

The cursive minuscule is the style of handwriting used in the 4th century. A pointed pen is used for this handwriting, but the pen was held more or less straight. It uses basically the same letter forms as half uncial.

Ancient Latin Alphabet Font

There are various fonts of the Latin alphabet. There are some websites that offer free downloadable fonts and free font generators. Here’s some samples for these fonts:

Example of the different characters that the Latin Alphabet uses

Common Characters Between Latin, Greek and Cyrillic Alphabets

Latin, Greek and Cyrillic share 11 letters. These 11 letters are: A, B, E, H, K, M, O, P, T, X and Y. They could have different pronunciations. It is already mentioned above that the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets are derived from the Greek alphabet, so it is normal to find some letters in the three alphabets.

The following diagram shows these letters. The Circle of the right is for the Greek alphabet. The circle on the left is for the Latin alphabet. The circle at the for the Cyrillic alphabet.

The Latin alphabet is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world today. It is originally derived from the Greek alphabet. It consists of 23 letters. There are different Latin handwriting styles. Letters of Latin are also used in the Roman numerals. The Latin alphabet has gone through various changes throughout time.

Frequently Asked Questions

Has Latin influenced the English Language?

Without even realising, many of the words you speak today are derived from the Latin language. Although Latin is a complex language it can be seen in our everyday lives and you are using it without even learning it. In religion, science, medicine and law the Latin language has influenced many of the words that are used, such as client, alter, discuss, and library. A few examples of words that we use in the English language that came from the Latin language are;

  • Finish- derived from the Latin word “finis” which means limit or territory
  • Herb- derived from the Latin word “herba” which means grass or weed
  • Invent- derived from the Latin word “inventus” which means found
  • Legal- derived from the Latin word “legalis“, Latin is found in many law terms
  • Miles- derived from the Latin word “milia” which means thousands
  • Manufacture- derived from the Latin word “manu factus” which means made by hand
  • Fact- derived from the Latin word “factum” which means done
  • Benefit- derived from the Latin word “bene factum” which means well done or good deed

Is Latin a Dead Language

Latin doesn’t have native speakers in the same way the English, Greek and French languages do. Since Latin does not have native speakers, it should be considered as a “dead language”. However, because the Latin language has such an influence on European and Western language through science, literature, religion and medicine it will never be fully considered an extinct or dead language. Today it is one of the oldest classical languages.

Where is Latin used today?

Latin is still spoken in some parts of the world but in particular the Vatican City, a city-state in Rome. This is where the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope, is situated. Masses would be said in Latin here.

How old is Latin?

Latin is roughly over 2,500 years old. The Romans were the first to begin using and writing down the Latin language when Romulus founded Rome around 750 B.C. The Romans were very good at invading countries and for this reason the Latin language spread far and fast.

If you found learning about the Latin alphabet interesting why not learn about the other alphabets on the Learning Mole. Some alphabets that might interest you are; Chinese Alphabet and Hindi Alphabet.

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